Over the past month, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has found himself in the media’s spotlight for reasons that would be surprising if he didn’t already have such a blemished track record as the leader of the world’s largest evangelical university.
Despite immense pushback, Falwell had planned to keep classes running amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. His grave lack of understanding of how viruses spread (or of science more generally) was and is deeply troubling for any university president worth their salt.
A simple Google search would have revealed the danger of his decision to continue running classes as all reputable news outlets had, for weeks, encouraged social distancing. He insisted it was all liberal media hype.
Falwell was strongarmed into moving classes online by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s emergency ban on public gatherings. But, despite the Governor’s ban, Falwell nonetheless welcomed some students back to campus who can clearly be seen disregarding social distancing protocol in footage taken by an LU student that was, ironically, intended as a defense of Falwell’s handling of Liberty amidst the pandemic.
Falwell’s disregard of so many voices of reason – those of public health officials, students, parents, and members of the Lynchburg community – in the name of politics calls into question his ethical, moral, and intellectual fitness to be a college president.
Falwell’s plan to keep the school open dramatically illustrates how he was willing to use his own students as political pawns in his battle against “the Left.” Indeed, he jeopardized the health and safety of the community in order to make a point that he believed the “liberal media” was overreacting to the World Health Organization’s classification of COVID-19 as a global pandemic.
It seems that politics trump the health and safety of those with whom Falwell is entrusted.
Falwell explained his initial plan to reopen the campus, stating: “We’re hopeful that it’s overhyped and it’s not as bad as everyone wants to think it is; we’re praying that’s the case.”
About 1900 students returned to campus housing after Spring Break. By the time a week passed, half had fled and students were reporting symptoms and being quarantined. No one knows how many students who live in off-campus housing returned.
In addition to his blatant disregard for his students’ wellbeing in favor of the culture wars, Falwell also told Fox & Friends that he wondered if COVID-19 was “a Christmas present for America” from North Korea. He suggested that COVID-19 is an elaborate biohazardous scheme “to get Trump.”
The virus first appeared in China, not North Korea. The two countries have vastly different provenance, size, and influence.
Falwell doubled down on his conspiracy theory, albeit modified, this week in the following Tweet:
I suggested on @foxandfriends on 3/13/20 that China was responsible for the Coronavirus pandemic. I was excoriated by the #FakeNews. Now Sen Tom Cotton and @FoxNews is reporting that Chinese corruption, negligence and treachery could be responsible for every COVID death! https://t.co/vM8DMB7CNS pic.twitter.com/17LaPAoww9
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) April 16, 2020
His propensity to buy into unfounded and wildly enigmatic conspiracy theories is nothing new. His belief that COVID-19 is a gift from China/North Korea is very much in line with the Liberty-sponsored propagandistic film The Trump Prophecy, a film based on a memoir of a man who believes God told him Trump would one day be president.
When asked on ABC News why he was ignoring public health guidelines by welcoming students, faculty, and staff back to campus, Falwell responded, “So, we emphasize safety first, we are cleaning surfaces every hour that are touched off, and we are increased police, uh, police protection on campus.”
“Every chair, every other chair, has a sign that says don’t sit next to the person beside, that might be next to you. Sit, leave a space between… And so, we’ve taken all the precautionary measures, and we, uh, all the students love it.”
Understandably, Falwell’s recent actions have garnered attention from both sides of the political spectrum, liberal and conservative alike.
One (soon-to-be-former) Liberty University professor publicly pleaded with the Liberty Board of Trustees to take Falwell’s seemingly unmitigated power from him during this pandemic. It is time that Liberty University goes one (sensible) step further and remove Falwell from his university presidency permanently.
As has been made overwhelmingly clear by his recent and not-so-recent statements and actions, Falwell is a man who would arguably be better suited for the world of conservative politics, rather than university education.
It is unclear, however, if Falwell quite understands the difference between Republican politics and university-level education.
He has a lengthy track record of censoring student free speech on campus and muffling student dissent, in addition to silencing faculty and university employees; university-wide fearmongering; lying; hypocrisy; questionable business deals; supporting civil disobedience as it relates to firearms; and running a school that has a gay conversion therapy program and a rampant and violent culture of homophobia.
A college president with such an extensively tarnished resumé that demonstrates a barefaced disregard for the welfare, safety, and livelihoods of his students is profoundly disconcerting. As more and more people question the validity of Falwell as a leader, his recent actions point to the need for the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges to investigate.
Falwell’s monumental mishandling of Liberty University during the pandemic can and should be understood as the model for what not to do in times of crisis and, more generally, for how a proper university should not be run. Indeed, this mismanagement of the situation is one in a long line of many that suggests why Falwell’s position as LU’s president ought to be earnestly reconsidered.
The Liberty Board of Trustees has a choice to make. Who do they serve: the God they profess to worship or Jerry Falwell Jr.?
Lucas Wilson holds a BA in English, summa cum laude, from Liberty University and an MA in English from McMaster University. He then completed his MTS with a Certificate in Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, graduating first in his class. He is now a PhD candidate in Comparative Studies at Florida Atlantic University, writing his dissertation and teaching in Toronto, Ontario, and he is a Dissertation Fellow through The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.